From Idea to Beta in 24 Hours. Say Hello to Your PA, Sharon

We landed in Mumbai at lunchtime on Sunday with a busy schedule of meetings for the week. On the way to the hotel, the very first set of traffic lights had me shoving my feet into the floor of the footwell; we were surrounded by cars, scooters and tuk-tuks on all sides no more than 6 inches away. All had their horns on permanent scream. Welcome to India, I thought, as I realised the next seven days were going to be a whole lot of culture.

Mumbai Tuk Tuk

We checked into the sanctitude of our hotel and immediately carried out the obligatory ‘get your bearings’ walk-about before grabbing some food and hitting the sack.

In the middle of the week, we had a clear 24-hour window with no meetings scheduled, sightseeing all done and no evening plans. What should we do? It seemed rude not to start by cooling down from the 35-degree heat with a couple of Kingfisher beers in the air conditioned lounge. As we mellowed, the ideas began to flow.

What to Build?

We wanted to create something that utilised ubisend. Having recently launched our API, it would be a good idea to build something to consume it. The ubisend API was very much an MVP, with just a short whiteboard session to determine the minimum endpoints necessary.

What better way to determine if we got it right than by using it?

Now, what should we build? Both Dean and I are members of the very active Facebook chatbots group so we decided it would be fun to build a chatbot. After further discussion and a couple more Kingfishers, we decided on some requirements. Our bot must:

  • Become a habitual tool
  • Not be a gimmick
  • Be fun
  • Be of real use

The Epiphany

I floated the idea of a to-do list using Facebook Messenger. We picked it apart, and although it had legs, we thought it probably didn’t have enough to make it worthwhile and habitual. Why would anybody use Facebook Messenger to do what tools like Wunderlist, Todoist, Trello and others already do so well?

Then an epiphany from Dean. What if it was more than just a to-do list. What if we could build a bot that could not only manage your to-dos, but also manage your calendar, give you traffic updates on your commute and deliver a morning briefing. What if we could build a bot that could be your personal assistant?

For both of us, it was like a light bulb had been switched on. The ideas of what an always-online-and-in-your-pocket PA could do would not stop flowing. Why couldn’t it book your travel, dictate your notes, proofread your documents, find you an uber or even order flowers for the anniversary you forgot?

Then the real moment of inspiration.

We have an Executive Assistant in our office. Yep, you guessed it, her name is Sharon. Out of nowhere, we started to use phrases like ‘What would Sharon do?’, ’Sharon, can you check the cost of flights to Mumbai?’, Sharon, what meetings do I have scheduled today?’.

Suddenly we not only had a name for our chatbot PA, but we had a language style and direction for what it should and shouldn’t do.

All we had to do was ask ‘Would Sharon do this?’ and then 'How would she communicate with you about it?'.

The Following 24 Hours

We believed this was all possible through Facebook Messenger and immediately began thinking about how far we could get in 24 hours. Starting with a whiteboard session (well, it was a napkin with a pen that didn't work), we mapped out everything we thought we would need to start getting people interested and signing up for a beta. This included:

  • Full list of features (and how to deliver them)
  • A Facebook page
  • Integration with ubisend
  • Short onboarding conversation with Sharon on Messenger
  • A domain and emails etc.
  • A marketing website
  • Beta signup process
  • A little bit of buzz

24 hours, a tonne of biscuits and a load of coffee later, Sharon was born.

Sharon Messenger Code

Making use of the downtime with our little hackathon was much fun, and we are confident that Sharon can become a useful tool. She is still very much in production, but if you are interested, feel free to strike up a conversation or visit sharon.ai. She will grab a few details for her Rolodex, and when her office has finished being painted, she will let you know when it is time to optimise your life.

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